MAUNA KEA, Hawaii >> Two days into the announced construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, foes held their ground without arrest and claimed victory once again.
For the mostly Native Hawaiian “protectors” of Mauna Kea, Day 2 was largely a day of failed negotiations and preparation for a rumored onslaught of police.
More than 200 activists occupied the Puu Huluhulu refuge next to Daniel K. Inouye Highway, the former Saddle Road, as well as a makeshift checkpoint at its intersection with Mauna Kea Access Road.
A couple dozen kupuna, or elders, volunteered to be the first to be arrested after leaders were unable to secure terms from police over access to the mountain. They sat in chairs underneath a tent in the middle of the access road.
Rumors swirled about a large police force en route to flush the group off the road. And they got a big scare when a dozen or so Honolulu Police Department vans approached the encampment from the Hilo side of the highway — and rolled on by toward Kona.
>> Photo Gallery: Thirty Meter Telescope opponents prepare for more protests
Moments later a state law enforcement officer announced there would be no arrests Tuesday on Mauna Kea as long as protesters let 22 astronomy workers through their access road blockade.
They agreed and then celebrated with hugs and songs.
One of the kupuna, 74-year-old Walter Ritte Jr., the veteran Molokai activist who was one of eight people who chained themselves to a cattle guard Monday, was elated.
“I tried twice to get arrested, but I’m not too successful. I’ll be back tomorrow to try again,” Ritte said.
“It’s a small win for today,” said Leinani Makekau-Whittaker of Hilo. “I’m ecstatic our mountain is safe one more day.”
State officials said the move to suspend the arrests was intended for the health and safety of everyone concerned, including astronomy workers who were trying to get off the mountain.
As for whether it was a victory for the protesters, state officials had a different take.
>> Related story: TMT says it’s not responsible to reimburse law enforcement
“Today communication channels between the state and telescope project opponents remained open as preparations for construction continued,” they said in a news release.
Jason Redulla, chief of the state’s Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement, said law enforcement is focused on preparing for construction of the $1.4 billion next-generation telescope.
“This is a very large-scale operation,” he told reporters on Mauna Kea Access Road. “We will be here as long as it takes. We’re committed to see this through.”
As planned, he said, officers and vehicles from other law enforcement agencies are on island to assist with preparing for construction.
Details about their activities would not be released for the operation’s safety and security, Redulla said repeatedly.
Mauna Kea Hui leader Kealoha Pisciotta said she was disturbed by news of the off-island police.
“It’s worrisome,” she said. “These people are not maa (accustomed) to the environment. They are out of their element, which makes them dangerous. They have the power to use lethal force.”
According to the Honolulu Police Department, officers arrived on Hawaii island to assist the Hawaii County Police Department in keeping the roadways clear for the movement of construction equipment and vehicles.
“The HPD officers were chosen from various units and shifts to ensure that the deployment will not impact police services on Oahu. For security reasons, the number and travel dates of the officers will not be released,” said spokeswoman Sarah Yoro in an emailed statement Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, negotiations over ground rules about access to Mauna Kea Access Road broke down between the activists and police.
Kahookahi Kanuha, leader of the TMT protesters, said police refused a handful of terms, including the continued maintenance of the protest checkpoint, including the kupuna tent, and not allowing the National Guard up the mountain.
Kanuha said the group would allow summit observatory personnel to pass through with one condition: that the Hawaiians be allowed access of one car a day to the mountain for cultural, religious or gathering purposes.
“After hours of negotiation, we have no agreement,” he told the throng gathered near the kupuna tent.
Later, about a dozen vehicles from observatories such as the Subaru Telescope and W.M. Keck Observatory were used to transport staff from all of the observatories off the mountain Tuesday afternoon under an agreement with the protesters, and a spokeswoman said all normal operations at telescopes at the summit were suspended Tuesday night.
Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asia Observatory, announced Tuesday that 25 staff had been working since Sunday at five different observatories, but the decision was made to pull them off the job because the observatories have had difficulty getting “consistent and safe access” on Mauna Kea Access Road.
“Our priority is to keep our staff safe, and we have determined that this is the only thing we can do right now to ensure that they don’t have to put themselves in any sort of personal danger,” she said. She said the summit shutdown of astronomy operations will affect “dozens of projects.”
The observatories have many millions of dollars’ worth of equipment that often needs daily care and maintenance, “so this is a risk and a wrench for us to have to step away to this point,” she said. She said she was not aware of any instances when staff were harassed or threatened by the protesters.
“As far as I’m aware, they have been incredibly good interactions for the most part,” she said. “It’s about being precautionary, and if staff have to even to stop on a highway, we don’t want to put them in that kind of situation, so at the moment it is simply a precaution.”
Staff writer Kevin Dayton contributed to this story.